Conflict in the Somerset Levels

The unprecedented levels of rainfall in southern parts of Britain this winter (with the wettest January since records began) have brought widespread flooding. But is the unusual weather the only cause? In the most devastated areas tensions have been running high as residents, politicians, scientists and the regulator (the Environment Agency) have argued about the causes of the flooding and the appropriate solutions to it. It has quite quickly turned into what is known as a ‘wicked problem’; characterised by societal, political and environmental complexity. In the Somerset Levels, the worst affected area, this has been contested most forcefully as an issue of dredging. Many local residents, farmers and politicians point to the drastic reduction in dredging works undertaken or permitted by the Environment Agency. Dredging (excavation of sediments from rivers and other watercourses), they argue, is necessary to maintain the capacity of watercourses and to permit more rapid conveyance of floodwaters out of the catchment. The capacity of a river channel is small compared to the catchment area from which water is sourced. Hence, the Environment Agency argues that dredging would not have prevented the current flooding and maintains that dredging has its own negative consequences (such as increasing flood risk further downstream – in often larger towns and cities – and damaging aquatic biodiversity).


Rather than discuss the science behind these different interpretations we want to propose that this dispute, taken more broadly, is not about dredging versus not dredging but reflects a contradiction between the paradigm of sustainability (or, more correctly, how it has been interpreted) and the imperative of politics to act in the ‘here and now’. Sustainability, by definition, requires an extension of our spatial and temporal horizons to look to the consequences of decisions and actions into the future and upon contemporary communities living further afield. It also recognises the need to balance environmental, economic and social considerations. Gaining global appeal since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, Sustainable Development became a leading political paradigm and was instrumental in reshaping the political and regulatory landscape in the UK at the end of the 20th century, as well as approaches to environmental management. There are two important shifts associated with this period that are relevant here. The first is the shift away from hard engineering to ‘softer’ approaches to flood management, or the idea of ‘working with nature’ rather than ‘against’ it. The second is the decreasing value placed on agriculture and farming by wider society; rather than being the heroic stewards of the landscape and the providers of the nation’s food supply, farmers came to be seen as environmentally damaging and over-subsidised through the provisions of the Common Agricultural Policy. These shifting priorities are partly reflected in the transition from the National Rivers Authority to the Environment Agency (England and Wales) in 1996, and from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in 2001.

The shift from hard to soft flood management solutions recognised that heavily engineered flood defences were expensive, could exacerbate flooding elsewhere (an expanded spatial consideration), were detrimental to river ecology, and could not offer a long-term solution on account of the expense of continual repairs and the increasing magnitude and frequency of flooding anticipated under climate change (an expanded temporal consideration). In other words, they were seen as unsustainable. Softer approaches, therefore, sought to ‘work with nature’ by accepting flooding in certain parts of a catchment and allowing floodplains to act as ‘natural’ stores of floodwater. This would be a low cost and low maintenance approach but would still protect more vulnerable/densely populated areas downstream as well as enhancing the ecological quality of the river.

The here and now

While such approaches work toward the more far-reaching goals and objectives of sustainability, they run into difficulty when they come up against the political imperative to respond to the very immediate and locally felt impacts of particular environmental events. For, the more acutely felt is the impact (as the case in the Somerset Levels), the louder are the voices of dissent; and the more immediate and tangible are the solutions that are demanded. Hence, when homes are being destroyed and livelihoods threatened, dredging can be seen as an immediate and tangible cause of, and solution to, the current problem. This is particularly true for the farming community, which for many years has valued drainage activities as indicative of good farming practice, and as essential in maintaining the productive capacity of their land. Blaming and targeting climate change in these circumstances, however, does not cut the political mustard. This is because, due to uncertainty, there is reluctance from the scientific community to pin individual weather events on climate change and the challenges of tackling climate change are equally beset with scientific and political complexity. In such circumstances, therefore, whether or not dredging will alleviate the problem in the future becomes almost secondary. The government is compelled to be seen to be taking action which prioritises a response that is immediate, locally targeted and tangible: sustainability is temporarily suspended.

The real issue, though, is not that sustainability thinking is oppositional to dealing with emergency events. It is that in the move from hard to soft flood management solutions the longer term and spatially remote implications were perhaps elevated above those of the contemporary and local. Yes, sustainability requires us to extend our horizons, but this should not come at the expense of the needs and interests of local communities. It appears, therefore, that the consequences of this management shift for farmers and rural communities were given insufficient attention, and this may reflect the wider shifts in value attached to agriculture that were occurring at this time. It also highlights a more fundamental contradiction when floodplains are viewed as ‘of nature’ or more natural than towns and cities. This serves to diminish the human consequences of flooding in rural areas, which are every bit as shaped by the actions of people, and are as much lived in as are the protected towns and cities downstream.

Dr Steven B Emery
Lecturer in Environment and Society

Professor David Hannah
Professor of Hydrology and Head of School

School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham